By Benjamin Joe
In 1939, the Niagara Frontier Boat Racing Association was founded by a few young men, “boat bugs,” who’d been informally racing along the Niagara River for years. They decided they should organize into a boat racing organization and created the NFBRA. The sport quickly won popularity and drew thousands of spectators.
Flash forward 80 years, those original boat bugs and their races have taken over the region with excitement. Every summer, thousands gather at the annual “Thunder on the Niagara” at Gratwick Park in North Tonawanda.
“This year, the new date is the first weekend of August, which is the 1st and the 2nd,” Chairman Gary Roesch said in regard to the annual summer event. “We’re going to continue to have a big car show, the Buffalo Motorama, which is about 300 cars and motorcycles. Then on Saturday night at dusk, we will have fireworks. We have vendors and crafters that will sell their wares.”
In the ’90s racing enthusiasm was dimmed in Western New York until the NFBRA was the only boat racing club in existence along the Niagara. After tireless effort by members, Thunder on the Niagara became a premier stop for the Hydroplane Racing League racing circuit.
Recently, the NFBRA held an appreciation party at the Sikora Post in North Tonawanda, a wrapping up of a very special 80th anniversary of “Thunder on the Niagara.” The party attracted 80 people, including Tom Snyder, the major sponsor for “Thunder on the Niagara” and owner of Snyder Industries; Don Less, the owner of GP50; Ken Brodie who drives the GP50 and the general manager of the company of GP50; as well as co-chairs of the regattas, Roesch and Mike Endres, both also former drivers themselves. Endres was a U.S. National Grand Prix champion in 1990. He now builds the engines for GP777, last year’s champions.
Roesch is looking to the future and next year’s event. He said every year he looks forward to it.
“I can’t wait,” Roesch said. “I’ve already sent out letters to North Tonawanda, to the Coast Guard, to all the different agencies that we have to get permission from.”
When asked what keeps him going, Roesch said it’s part of that passion.
“My dad raced when I was a kid, and then I raced,” he said. “I’ve been retired for 12 years or so, and I just keep doing it.”